What’s not to love about a “Wild, Wild Mushroom Fest” that begins in a saloon?
The Central Pa. Mushroom Club, led by expert mycologist and mushroom guidebook author Bill Russell, organized the Oct. 22 event that was held in the Cameron County village of Driftwood, population 67. Nestled between branches of Sinnmahoning Creek, adjoining Johnson Run Natural Area and close to the Bucktail State Park Natural Area, Driftwood was ablaze with fall colors that weekend and drew a crowd of about 40 people to the event. Tall tables leading to the lecture and discussion in the back room were covered with wild mushroom specimens in abundant variety brought in from the countryside by the attendees.
Rubenesque puffballs covered one table and a massive specimen adorned a pickup truck in the parking lot. On display were several hen-of-the-wood, aka maitake or sheep’s head, Grifola frondosa, a polypore that grows in clusters on trees and is highly prized in Japan and China as a medicinal mushroom that fights cancerous tumors. Chicken of the woods, laetiporus, the large chunks of the sulphur shelf mushroom somewhat pale from its bright orange peak stage, were in abundance and the elusive and highly prized chaga, inonotus obliquus, brought murmurs of appreciation from the crowd. The chaga, looking about as comely as a lump of burnt charcoal, is found on birch trees. Russell sang its praises, relating the story of the success that he had in the past treating his own and his wife’s cancer with a tea brewed from the fungi.
Following Russell’s presentation and a show and tell on the live specimens, a mushroom soup contest followed with seven crockpots offering samples. One rule of the contest was that the soup mushrooms all be purchased from grocery stores and not foraged, since sensitivity to different species of wild mushrooms is very common. The chef and his staff were the judges and State College resident Becky Johnson was later announced as the winner for her creamy mushroom chowder.
After the soup tasting, the crowd filed out to take to the woods and forage for wild mushrooms. The suggested site was high on the Quehanna bluff, affording a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountaintops and a stiff wind flaked with precipitation. People wandered through the trails and into the forest, some finding specimens, some just enjoying the conversation about where else to look and when. After a thorough chilling we drove back down the mountain to regroup and sample some of the treasures of the forest.
Kim and Scott Yandric, new owners of the Driftwood Saloon and Grill since last April, were accommodating to the group as folks settled back into the cozy warmth and soon platters of puffball pizza were circulating. The puffball has no flavor of its own but makes a worthy base for a savory topping of sauce and cheese, especially when the slices of puffball are grilled first. Chunks of deep fried chicken mushroom followed, some coated with a Buffalo wing sauce, and sizzling bowls of fried oyster mushrooms were also available for sampling.
Spirits were high as the mycophiles swapped tales of mushroom hunting and cooking techniques. Many of those in the room were from other parts of the state, up for a weekend in elk country to stay in the many cabins in the area, and to check out the newly renovated Driftwood Saloon and the new visitors’ center in nearby Benezette.
For more information about the Central Pa. Mushroom Club visit its Facebook page. If you want to learn about wild mushrooms, do not try to teach yourself. Many species are toxic and can cause great intestinal distress and even death. But some varieties can heal you. To learn the difference, go see Russell at Webster’s Bookstore Café every Monday between about 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the wild mushroom growing season, which is a large part of the year thanks to the current warm winter phenomenon. You can bring wild mushrooms that you find to be identified or you can just come and speak with other people who are interested in the woods and the wild things in it.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.